Ohio would merge its school, university and workforce systems into one under new bill

COLUMBUS, Ohio – Leaders of the Ohio House hope to combine the state’s school, university and workforce development systems into a single new Department of Learning and Achievement in the name of better aligning efforts to prepare students for jobs and college.

A bill to merge the state departments of Education, Higher Education and Workforce Transformation, was announced this morning, though the text has not been released. It is sponsored by Rep. Bill Reineke, a Tiffin Republican, and has the support of House Speaker Cliff Rosenberger.

Several speakers at the announcement said the merger is key to meeting a goal of increasing the number of high school graduates going into two- or four-year colleges, apprenticeships, jobns or the military.

“How do we continiue to align Ohio’s education system for the workforce of tomorrow?” Rosenberger said. “That’s what this bill’s all about.”

Click here to view the announcement.

Governor John Kasich also offered support for the bill, through spokesman Jon Keeling.

“We’re encouraged by an effort like this to improve the management and accountability of how the state supports students and frontline educators,” Keeling said.

We’ll have more here soon. The bill, as outlined in the press conference, would:

– Combine the three state departments into one, instead of each being separate as they are now.

– Allow the governor to name a single director at the cabinet level to oversee all three.

– Keep the state superintendent and state school board, which are required under the state constitution. But they would lose all policy powers they have now.

About 80 percent of their work would transfer to the new department, while they would retain oversight of licensure and discipline of school employees.

“Policy would still be driven by the legislature, but seems to be more effective coming through this structure,” Reineke said.

Removing the state school board from the policy process, he said, would allow faster response and better match other state departments.

In announcing the bill, Reineke was joined by educators from his region, who praised it for making job preparation a priority.

Gary Barber, superintendent of the Tiffin schools, said the merger will give clarity to districts of how to prepare students for an ever-changing workplace.

“No longer are we in position to graduate our students, wish them well and hope they go out and discover their passion,” Barber said. “It’s our responsibility to make sure our students have a successful transition.”

The two state officials who would be most affected by the change – State Superintendent Paolo DeMaria and Chancellor John Carey – denied any knowledge of the proposal Monday.

DeMaria said he has not seen any plan. As a veteran of Ohio politics for years, having served as the state budget director in the past, DeMaria said it’s an interesting debate that comes up periodically. When asked about rumors of the bill at Tuesday’s school board meeting, DeMaria made a similar comment to the board.

Asked today for comment on the proposal, DeMaria again avoided discussing how his role would change.

“We remain focused on supporting Ohio’s education community in providing excellent learning opportunities for each student and making sure they’re ready for the economy of tomorrow,” he said in an email.

Chancellor John Carey, a Kasich appointee and member of the governor’s cabinet, also said Monday he didn’t know about it.

And state school board President Tess Elshoff, who was appointed to the board by Kasich, had no comment Monday, as well.

State Rep. Teresa Fedor, the ranking Democrat on the House Education Committee, immediately opposed the bill.

“A bigger, mega-department of education will mean a tangled web of unresponsive, unaccountable appointed officials can more easily put special interests ahead of our children’s best interests,” Fedor said. “This isn’t surprising – it’s just another bad idea on a laundry list of failed education policies from GOP leaders.”

Three major school groups – the Ohio School Boards Association, Ohio Association of School Business Officials and the Buckeye Association of School Administrators, all expressed concern with the merger.

“The Ohio Department of Education is not without its shortcomings but given the downsizing and increased responsibilities that have occurred over the past decade, that is not surprising,” said OASBO  Executive Director Jim Rowan. “This, coupled with the rapid changes we often see in public education policy mandated by the Ohio General Assembly, can result in frustration by our members.”

He added: “However, our experience in working with department staff to resolve issues and questions from the field is typically very positive.”

The bill was praised by the Fordham Institute, a prominent advocate on education issues in the state, for putting all three departments under the governor. The bill would show the state is “serious about holding the governor accountable for educational progress, whoever he or she may be.”

“By creating an agency under the direct oversight of the governor, the legislature would ensure that governors are unambiguously responsible–and accountable to the people–for executing Ohio education laws,” Fordham wrote in a prepared statement.

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